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University of Florida hopes to capitalize on a sports hot streak

Luis Zaragoza
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)
Florida's Al Horford, lower left, hoists the championship trophy amid a sea of fans as the Florida Gators basketball team returns to Gainesville Regional Airport, Tuesday, April 3, 2007. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT)

ORLANDO, Fla. - The University of Florida's unprecedented run - a football championship and back-to-back men's basketball titles in 12 months - has many wondering just how big a collateral payoff to expect in programs across the board.

Schools that have enjoyed a wave of goodwill following a big win in sports often see a surge in applications, gift offers and increased interest in alumni groups, researchers and boosters say. But not always at once. And schools find it difficult to gauge just how much of that activity can be attributed to winning the big trophies.

Whatever happens in the coming months will be closely watched, given UF's skyrocketing national profile. While its sports teams have long enjoyed fanatical devotion from Florida students and alumni, the extraordinary title run has impressed administrators at other top schools and wowed observers who've spent a lifetime watching and running college sports.

"I was sitting there, watching the end of the (national championship) game, thinking about what an extraordinary achievement this is," said Mike Slive, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and member of the NCAA men's basketball committee. "It has to be unparalleled in the modern annals of college athletics."

Winning at such a remarkable rate, particularly in the major sports, has made UF the elite of the elite.

Its sports programs raked in $82.4 million from ticket sales, merchandising and other revenue sources in 2005-06, clearing a $4.2 million profit, according to U.S. Department of Education data. By contrast, Ohio State's sports teams brought in $104.7 million in revenue and a $2.9 million profit during that time.

"To win the national championship in two major sports would be anybody's dream," said UCLA director of athletics Dan Guerrero. "Obviously, they're at the pinnacle."

So what's next? Schools thrust into the limelight by athletic achievements typically seize the opportunity to promote a variety of programs while the buzz lasts and hope for good returns over the long haul. UF supporters plan to follow suit.

"If people take a close look at the University of Florida, they find there are all these other great things happening there," said Jeff Jonasen, an Orlando attorney and incoming treasurer of the UF Alumni Association. "Engaging our alumni and our friends and having them feel good about the university means they'll support the university with their pocketbooks."

George Mason University in Virginia is one recent example of a school that has been working hard to capitalize on visibility brought by a winning team. Its men's basketball program seemingly came out of nowhere in 2006 to claim a spot in the NCAA Final Four. The school scored countless media mentions along the way.

"The challenge for us before was visibility," said Dan Walsch, a George Mason spokesman. "Once the national spotlight was on us, the challenge was what to do with it."

The school launched fund-raising and recruitment campaigns. Freshman applications for fall 2007 went up around 23 percent. The school's online alumni registry has grown by more than 50 percent.

Fall applications to UF spiked 8 percent from the previous year to around 25,000 - and that's for 6,300 available spots, spokesman Steve Orlando said. Getting into UF is competitive anyway, since it has built a reputation as a top research school over many decades. So it is not known whether the fall spike was due primarily to the first basketball title, Orlando said. "But everybody loves a winner."

Senior Jordan Wall of Clearwater said the sports program played a role in his decision to attend Florida. But it was not because of all the winning. The Gators were mediocre in football and basketball when he started.

"It was how large sports are on campus and how many students come out to support the team," said Wall, 22, about what attracted him. "It's the whole atmosphere. So that was a huge factor." And when you're winning, "that makes it more electric. That's what it's been, very electric on campus."

Junior Kathryn Slater, of Miami, was drawn to Florida by sports too. Her decision to attend was cinched after attending a football game as part of a family weekend that included her sister, who already was attending UF.

"I remember loving the cheers, especially the `gator bait,' " said Slater, 20. "I loved it. All the energy from the crowd, it was so amazing."

Besides making students feel more connected to the university, athletics foster a sense of affiliation with the broader community, researchers say.

"When Florida won last night, the whole state won," said Jeff Lucas, a sociology professor at the University of Maryland.

Florida might not be done winning in this academic year. The Gator gymnastics team sits No. 1 in the country heading into next week's NCAA regional competition at the University of Michigan. Women's tennis and men's golf are each No. 3 in the nation this spring, and women's golf is ranked eighth.

"It's just an incredible time for the entire university," said Randy Talbot, UF Alumni Association president. The attitude moving forward, he said, ought to be, "Let's not waste this window of opportunity."

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(Orlando Sentinel staff writers Andrea Adelson, David Curtis and Susan Jacobson contributed to this report.)

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